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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dr. Johnson and His Watson

“I am lost without my Boswell.”


It’s a good guess that Sherlock Holmes’s famous comment to Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia” inspired Lillian de la Torre to write her long-running series of mystery short stories featuring Dr. Samuel Johnson as an amateur sleuth whose exploits are narrated by his friend James Boswell.


The first collection of these stories, Dr. Sam:Johnson, Detector, was published in 1946. This month I inherited a copy from a dear friend, along with numerous other books including a two-volume edition of the real Boswell’s Life of Johnson.


De la Torre, it seems to me, did an excellent job of mimicking Boswell’s writing style (and spelling) and well as Johnson’s manner of speaking. I found the book to be a fast and engaging read. The stories are fair-play mysteries, with all the clues that could enable a reader to reach the same conclusion as Dr. Johnson. Sometimes, in fact, readers likely will find that rather easy to do.


Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector is listed on the Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library ofDetective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction as a landmark book in the genre, perhaps because it pioneered historical mystery fiction. Most of the characters and many of the incidents in the stories are real. I much appreciated the section called “Historical Background” at the end of the book, separating fact from fiction in each story.


Some of the tales reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown adventures because of the way in which initial appearances deceived and everything changed when they were looked at in a different way. But the inescapable comparison is to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. De la Torre’s Johnson relies in each case on solid reasoning to solve the crime, as does Holmes.


And if Watson is Holmes’s Boswell, it is equally true that Boswell is Johnson’s Watson in the able hands of Lillian de la Torre.

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